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More Funds, Less Regulation Asked for Bilingual Education

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Washington--The Reagan Administration's proposed amendments to the Bilingual Education Act received strong support from the representatives of several education groups last week during a hearing before members of the House Subcommittee on Elementary, Secondary, and Vocational Education.

But noticeably absent from the subcommittee's first hearing on the proposed legislation were any representatives from Hispanic and bilingual-education advocacy groups, who opposed the Administration's efforts last year to amend the law.

The proposed amendments, which were introduced in the House earlier this year as the "bilingual education improvement act," would allow school districts to broaden their range of instructional approaches for limited-English-proficient children.

Native Language

Under the current law, school districts must provide instruction in the children's native language in order to qualify for federal support.

The proposed legislation, which was cosponsored by two Republicans, Representatives John N. Erlenborn of Illinois and William Goodling of Pennsylvania, would also target federal funds for local education programs that serve non-English-speaking children. A similar bill, sponsored by Senator Orrin G. Hatch, Republican of Utah, has been introduced in the Senate.

During last week's subcommittee hearing, Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell called the proposed amendments "one of the most important items" on the Administration's legislative agenda and denied the charges of bilingual-education advocates that the measure would undermine bilingual-education programs.

"The proposed amendments would allow the department to fund whatever educational approach a school district believes warranted, so long as that approach is designed to meet the special educational needs of the limited-English-proficient and can be justified as appropriate by the school district," Secretary Bell said.

"This modification would bring the program into agreement with current research which indicates that no one approach is superior for meeting the special needs of limited-English-proficient students in all circumstances," the Secretary explained.

Negative Impact

Testifying against the Administration's proposal, Representative Robert Garcia, Democrat of New York, argued that the changes would have a negative impact on language-minority students and the schools they attend. He said bilingual education neither impedes students from learning English nor "promotes cultural separatism."

"Make no mistake about it; bilingual education is not to blame for social, economic, and political separation of these citizens," asserted Representative Garcia, who is chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. "Few, if any, of these people ever attended a bilingual-education class," he added. "Rather, they were left to 'sink or swim' in classrooms with teachers who couldn't communicate and texts which were unintelligible."

The recently completed report of the Twentieth Century Fund, which examined the role of federal government in education--including bilingual-education programs--recommended no single method of teaching limited-English-proficient students, according to Diane Ravitch, associate professor of history and education at Columbia University's Teachers College and a member of the panel that conducted the study. She said the report does recommend an end to the mandate of a single method of instruction.

Ms. Ravitch noted during the hearings that the federal government had not mandated an educational method prior to the enactment of the current bilingual-education law.

Legal Controversies

Jolly Ann Davidson, president-elect of the National Association of State Boards of Education, said the proposed legislation may serve as a means of ending the legal controversies that have developed over the education of language-minority students.

Although Ms. Davidson said she agreed with the major concepts of the proposed legislation, she argued against reducing federal funds and imposing a five-year limit on funding for individual school districts. ''It would be exceedingly unwise, we think, to cut off federal aid for children with little or no command of English in school systems where their numbers continue to grow," she explained.

"Similarly, we find it difficult to understand how, as these students' ranks continue to expand, the Administration can propose a significant reduction; indeed, an increase in current funding may be needed if school systems are to provide sufficient help for these children," asserted Ms. Davidson, who was also testifying on behalf of national organizations representing governors, legislators, state superintendents of education, and principals.

Agreeing that more and not less federal money is needed for bilingual education, Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, told subcommittee members that the Congress should authorize at least $200 million to accomplish the goals of the proposed legislation.

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